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Case Study: Sunday Schools

On their own, children grow, play, learn, and eventually reach adulthood. They become educated, however, only if somebody provides that for them. In the first half of the nineteenth century, only about 50 percent of American children were given formal schooling.

Many of the others missed school because they were sent out to work. Trudging off to jobs or farm work six days a week, they had no opportunity to pick up reading, writing, and arithmetic. So at an accelerating pace from the early 1800s on, a large group of volunteers and donors went to work to compensate for that—by offering free literacy lessons (and much more) on the one day when almost everyone had free time: Sunday.

The founders of Sunday schools were especially concerned about poor and working-class children, newly arrived immigrants, and disadvantaged minorities, and began their efforts there. They first taught youngsters the alphabet, then how to read and write, and sometimes arithmetic. They trained children in valuable techniques of memorization. They used the Bible as a main text, and transmitted religious knowledge and lots of character training while providing the tools of communication.

These schools tapped into deep hungers in the U.S. population, and became wildly popular. Many poor children picked up more of their literacy, and their moral compass, at Sunday school than they did in our uneven, inadequate, and often nonexistent public schools. Adult Sunday schools were also formed so “mechanics” and other laboring men could be instructed outside of working hours. Organizers placed schools in factories, homes, shops, and other public buildings in addition to churches, to make sure they reached those in need. “As an agency of cultural transmission,” concludes the leading historian on this topic, the Sunday school run by volunteers “rivaled in importance the nineteenth-century public school” created by government.

A focus on the least

“In the United States of America, the progress of Sunday schools has been truly astonishing,” observed an 1820 report from Britain. “Schools are formed in almost every considerable town and village. They have extended to the…Indian tribes, and have spread particularly among the blacks.”

Though black children and adults were blocked from many other forms of education, they were heartily welcomed in Sunday schools. School sponsors actively sought opportunities to teach slaves and free blacks alike. Even in Southern states like South Carolina, Tennessee, and Missouri, Sunday classes served slaves as often as owners allowed. In northern cities like Philadelphia, Utica, and New York, from a quarter to two thirds of the adults who enrolled in Sunday schools around 1820 were black. Contemporary observers commented on the “intenseness of application” demonstrated by many of the black students given this chance to master words and the Word. And after the Civil War, the surge of black adults into Sunday schooling was massive.

From its launch, the Sunday-school movement was entwined with other charitable efforts to help the indigent. Many of the organizers, teachers, and donors were also active in groups like the Society for the Relief of Poor Women and Children, the Bowery Village Benevolent Society, Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Public Economy, and similar groups that served the poor. Teachers often handed out clothing, food, and other necessaries as part of their classes.

Precisely what kind of influence on the next generation did the reformers aim to have? A card that the Benton Street Mission Sunday School in St. Louis gave to parents is a typical document. Under the heading “What Our Sunday School Does” the aims of the school are summarized this way:

It trains children in the practice of benevolence, love, obedience to parents, truthfulness, kindness to one another, and purity of language. It seeks to lead them to love Jesus, and to walk in the path of wisdom.

One “path of wisdom” that nearly all Sunday schools taught to even their poorest children was the importance of being generous. Most schools collected small sums during the year to give to people in trouble and need. Eastern students might buy books for their counterparts in the less prosperous Midwest. Frontier students might give pennies to medical missionaries in India. A class would often adopt a single cause or beneficiary and support it with steady little donations over a period of time. In addition to whatever practical help those funds provided, the practice established charitable human ties, and got the next generation of Americans used to the idea that everyone can, and should, offer assistance to others.

America’s Sunday schools were surprisingly successful at avoiding religious battles, sectional rifts, or other jealousies that could have blocked their spread. Concerted effort was made to keep the Christian content of instructional materials broad enough to include all denominations. Sunday schools provided basic Bible teaching to all types of Protestants, Catholic families, and even people who did not believe in Christ. Records show that many schools were a mix of Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and others.

This charitable campaign’s focus on the least, the lost, and the left-behind took an ambitious step forward in 1830, when delegates of the American Sunday School Union voted enthusiastically to push schools out across our nation’s frontier. The annual meeting passed a Mississippi Valley Resolution pledging to organize, supply, and man Sunday schools “in every destitute place” across 1.3 million square miles of our Midwestern prairie. An outpouring of $60,000 in donations and a surge of volunteer teachers followed almost immediately. Three years later a similar pledge was made to spread schools across the South.

Those frontier Sunday schools became seminal institutions. For some settlers, the lessons were the only time they gathered with their scattered neighbors. Many families learned for the first time to write letters that connected them to friends and families back East. The seeds of Sunday schools sprouted into churches, common schools, and eventually villages. And a reservoir of basic literacy, shared religious knowledge, and Christian morality was created among the Americans manning the crude and sometimes cruel edges of our nascent civilization.

Thanks to energetic organizing, steady contributions, and vast expenditures of time by volunteer teachers, Sunday-school growth was meteoric. When the American Sunday School Union was founded in 1824 as a coordinating body, it attracted 723 local schools as members. Hundreds more schools belonged to some other local or regional group, or were unaffiliated. Just eight years later, the ASSU represented 8,268 schools. And by the time of the Civil War there were more than 60,000 schools.

Folding in the middle class

As their popularity boomed, Sunday-school classes expanded to include not only poor children but also most middle-class children. With common schools improving, Sunday schools began to move beyond basic reading instruction and focus on guiding their charges in how to live ethically, via Bible lessons and intensive mentoring from teachers. In most communities the two kinds of educational institutions were very aware of what the other was doing, and cooperated in ways that allowed each to be better and more specialized. Most families believed that children needed both kinds of training. Of children on the rolls of New York public schools in 1827, for instance, more than 60 percent also attended Sunday school.

It wasn’t just parents who wanted Sunday schools to offer moral guidance. Many American leaders warned that the only way our experiment in popular government would succeed was if everyday people were educated and virtuous. In our urban slums and raw frontiers there were many individuals in serious need of elevation.

Most of the successful businessmen who funded the Sunday-school movement had risen from poverty by developing wholesome disciplines. They knew what was needed by our strugglers, and how it could best be gotten. “We miss the heart of the problem if we neglect personal character and neighborhood righteousness,” wrote one group of movement leaders.

A good glimpse into the mind and motivations of the American evangelical reformers who drove our Sunday-school crusade can be had from reading a sermon entitled “Our Sunday Schools and Our Country” that was delivered before a gathering of school managers in 1860, in New Haven, Connecticut. The name of the speaker has been lost to history, but he well encapsulated the purposes behind the work that thousands of volunteers put into this effort. He starts by invoking a society

distinguished not for its dazzling conquest, nor for the luxuries of princely wealth…but for that unity, liberty, and stability which are the fruits of a government that rests upon the intelligence and godliness of the people as its sure foundation…. How is this wisdom and this knowledge to be secured?

Not surely by legislative action, since no nation, however politically gifted, can enact themselves wise….

When you look upon a company of little ones…pause for a moment, and ask…. Who is that bright-eyed boy, in tattered dress, whom no kind friend has yet clothed?… He will be a saint or a devil, and which of the two, it may be for you to say. Somebody must take him by the hand and love him, and teach him to love, before hate gets the mastery of his heart….

But these children are to be something more than good citizens or bad citizens…. Immortality is the prerogative of the humblest of them…. They are to dwell with the lost, or to be “kings and priests to God.”… How shall we fully meet the responsibility of such a relation, and faithfully do the duties belonging to it? The chief instrumentality for accomplishing all this is the Sunday school…. where mind, heart, and habit of life are all to be the subjects of the teacher’s patient and devout labors.

The middle-class philanthropists behind the Sunday-school movement put emphasis on both individual integrity and social goodness, on personal success and on community harmony. They believed good moral instruction was the key to both. But they knew that in a country like America, the root of collective virtue would always be individual morality—the honesty, industry, and decency of each of society’s members. So, as one historian notes, “by 1820 the Sunday school had joined the prayer meeting, the mission chapel, and the urban missionary as a tool for combating urban problems,” with parallel efforts taking place across the wild prairies and forests of our frontier.

Many poor children picked up more of their literacy, and their moral compass, at Sunday school than they did in our uneven, inadequate, and often nonexistent public schools.

In European societies, religion was sometimes used as a tool to housebreak and control the poorer classes. And rulers everywhere are tempted to wield politics for that same purpose. The philanthropic reformers behind America’s Sunday schools eschewed both ofthose approaches.

“Having rejected politics as a means to control the lives of others, the men of the American Sunday School Union pursued a more elusive goal: Influence,” writes historian Anne Boylan. “The Sunday school, while coercing no one, held up standards of conduct to which members could voluntarily submit…. It offered individuals a source of guidance and direction in a highly mobile society.”

Americans, noted Sunday-school organizers, do not defer to “betters.” If the schools were going to succeed, they could not be structured as places where middle-class and wealthy sponsors train poor children in obedience. They had to be places that enriched participants and were self-evidently desirable. So successful middle-class families put money and energy into providing this moral instruction for the young; and they also put in their own children.

From early on, business leaders, professionals, and prominent preachers like Lyman Beecher enrolled their offspring in the Sunday schools that also served poor and unchurched families. In 1817, the duPont family and other factory and mill owners in their region set up a Brandywine Manufacturers’ Sunday School that sat the children of workers and local farmers right next to the youngsters of company managers and bosses. DuPont’s daughters volunteered in classrooms every week as teachers. Even the school trustees were a mix of manual workers and superintendents from the mills. Similar mixings of social classes could be seen in Sunday schools operating in New England, Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and elsewhere.

In this way, Sunday schooling became a mass phenomenon. By 1920 there were 200,000 Sunday schools in the country. Tens of millions of young and old Americans received instruction every year.

Harnessing the power of committed teachers

The Sunday-school movement’s most potent asset was its cadre of volunteer teachers. Most were enthusiastic young adults just a decade or so older than their students. Think of them as the talented Teach For America instructors of their era.

It was determined from the beginning that teachers should strive to be mentors and role models, not just instructors. Toward this end, classes were kept at intimate sizes—about ten pupils per leader. And it was standard procedure for teachers to visit students in their homes and build “strong reciprocal affections” that often led to long-term associations. In addition to their class time, teachers went on excursions with students, visited them when they were sick, and took an interest in their lives. Lots of correspondence survives to document the respect and friendship and behavior-modeling that often developed between teachers and charges. Thanks to these personal bonds, when the storms of adolescence raged it was generally true that “the last cord snapped will be the Sunday-school teacher’s influence.”

Here again we come across that gentle word “influence.” The warm relations between teacher and child that bolstered the character-shaping power of the Sunday school were different from the dynamic that existed in most public schools. For one thing, Sunday schools prohibited corporal punishment. In an era when there was lots of whipping and caning and rodding in common schools, the organizers of Sunday schools insisted that “kindness alone” should discipline the children, that “persuasion forms the only weapon of the teacher.”

Obviously this wasn’t easy. Teachers sometimes faced rather feral children whom they had to reprimand for lying, cruelty, swearing, and other behaviors that needed to change. Yet their success levels were surprisingly high. There are many community testimonials like the report from New Jersey attesting that “no sooner were schools commenced in destitute places than a change was visible in the morals of the children and the inhabitants of the neighborhood.”

A final way that some Sunday-school pupils emulated their admired mentors was by joining them in the teaching corps. This was sufficiently common to create a self-fueling mechanism for the schools. The most important element that made them work—their volunteer leaders—replenished itself.

A final way that some Sunday-school pupils emulated their admired mentors was by joining them in the teaching corps. This was sufficiently common to create a self-fueling mechanism for the schools. The most important element that made them work—their volunteer leaders—replenished itself.

Teachers believed this was important mission work. And many were also attracted for personal reasons. One of the secret powers of the Sunday-school movement was that at the same time it lifted and formed its students, it also gratified teachers and fed their souls.

“The lives of Sunday-school teachers, as pictured in diaries and memoirs, reveal the significance they attached to teaching,” writes Boylan. These young adults, most newly born again in their faith, found that this work helped cement their Christianity identity, and meshed well with their youthful search for meaning.

By 1920 there were 200,000 Sunday schools, and tens of millions of young and old Americans received instruction every year.

There were also lots of opportunities for Sunday-school teachers to get together for social interaction and fun—picnics, boatrides, singing, etc.—and for the exchanges of information and mutual reinforcement that build esprit de corps. Scads of magazines and advice books were published specifically for Sunday-school teachers. These not only spread effective techniques and encouragement, but built solidarity across boundaries of denomination, region, and so forth that could have slowed this work if not overcome.

Most of these young leaders were very serious about mastering their craft. In order to “preserve their own self-respect and the respect of their pupils,” urged one participant, Sunday-school teachers should strive to equal or exceed the effectiveness of professional teachers working in the common schools, “not only in breadth of mind but in capacity to instruct.” There were publications that taught teachers Greek and Hebrew so they could be more effective Bible interpreters. The latest assessments of effective classroom technique were shared across the teaching corps. Teachers gathered in regular prayer meetings and reinforced each other. In the second half of the 1800s a whole network of “teachers’ institutes” grew up across the country, to train Sabbath teachers in the best techniques and information.

Princeton professor Archibald Alexander observed that lots of young Sunday-school teachers were “actually becoming accurate Bible theologians.” Major New York philanthropist John Pintard observed to a correspondent that his stepgrandson, who had taken up teaching, was “deriving more Bible information” from his Sunday-school volunteering “than left to himself he would probably have acquired all his life.” Many instructors commented on how teaching had enriched their own understanding. “How often, while we have been endeavoring to instill into the children’s minds a knowledge,” wrote one Baltimore woman, “have our own hearts been made to burn within us.”

Hitting human chords

One side effect of America’s Sunday-school mobilization was the Chautauqua movement. Two Methodists—minister John Vincent and entrepreneur Lewis Miller—wanted to offer information, practical training, and inspiration to the men and women staffing Sunday schools. So they and other philanthropists created a kind of summer camp-meeting on the shore of lovely Chautauqua Lake in western New York and invited young teachers from across the East and Midwest to come hear lectures, participate in book groups, sing hymns, study the history and geography of the Holy Land, and refresh themselves through dips in the lake, woodland walks, and friendly dinners with fellow teachers and Christians who were aiming to sharpen their minds and hone their teaching skills in exactly the same ways.

The original Chautauqua assemblies were so popular and so successful at disseminating knowledge and moral enthusiasm across the country that they were copied in hundreds of other places. The self-improving holiday became an American tradition, and “chautauqua” became a generic term in our language, defined as “a series of adult education courses and entertainments held outdoors in the summer for purposes of self-improvement.” Americans’ attraction to this kind of earnest instructional recreation and the whole concept of lifelong learning—which can be seen today in everything from TED talks to self-help guides to neighborhood book circles—was in many ways first crystallized in the Chautauqua gatherings.

Sunday schooling also became a force in publishing. Not only study plans and Bible lessons but also popular magazines, children’s stories, novels, and morality tales that were avidly absorbed by millions of adolescents and young adults flew off the presses, with support from philanthropists. A whole culture of reading grew out of Sunday schooling, and historians report that this was a prime factor in making American laborers the most literate in the world.

As early as 1829, the American Sunday School Union (which was just one of many publishers that competed to supply classrooms) reported it had issued more than 5 million copies of various publications over the previous five years. This required printing 100,000 pages every day. A genre of Christian fiction for children was created and distributed through Sunday schools, at a time when fiction was dismissed by many Americans as useless or even harmful. Movement leaders were wise enough to understand that stories that pull children to the printed word both train their brains and open opportunities to inform appetites and values. Sunday-school fiction was crafted to make reading fun, even addictive, while transmitting wholesome ideas.

All of this output not only required the movement’s leaders to master new technology for mass communication, but also to marshal new forms of creativity. Stables of freelance writers had to be built up to fill the magazines, write the study guides, and craft the new Christian fiction. Ministers and professional teachers were often recruited as writers. Certain authors became prolific, sometimes presiding over workshops of acolytes who churned out works.

Teachers often gave away books and periodicals as prizes. Sunday schools also built up remarkable lending libraries. By 1832, there were about 4,000 Sunday schools with libraries that children could borrow from, and the average collection contained around 100 books. Libraries became even commoner, and larger, as the years passed, and these helped prepare many children for life in a nation where reading was becoming essential to success. The Sunday-school reading material also transmitted a whole complex of Protestant virtues, personal disciplines, and moral perspectives that equipped poor children to move quickly into America’s burgeoning middle class.

Sunday-school philanthropists harnessed the power of new forms of popular culture in other areas as well. In 1810, there were few songs created specifically for children and teenagers, and none but a handful that had any educational or moral content. Movement leaders went to work to change that, insisting that there “is no reason the devil should have all the popular tunes.”

Sunday schools gave out sheet music, books, magazines, and printed pictures to students as rewards. They sponsored picnics and field trips. They distributed food and clothing to threadbare students. Free classes in sewing and other practical skills were offered. Employment agencies were created at some urban Sunday schools to connect families to work. It’s no surprise Sunday school became a highlight of many childhoods.

A charity run by businessmen

Much of this savvy marketing stemmed from the fact that businessmen were the main organizers and funders of the Sunday-school movement. The largest umbrella organization, the American Sunday School Union, has been referred to as “a society run by merchants.” Commercial skill was apparent in many of the organizational methods that helped make the movement successful.

The American enthusiasm for self-improvement and lifelong learning—which can be seen today in everything from TED talks to self-help guides to neighborhood book circles—was first crystallized by the Sunday-school movement.

While they firmly believed that “Christian character, earnestness, and love for souls” were the essential bedrock of successful Sunday schooling, the businessmen who led the effort recognized “the necessity for practical efficiency” if they were going to have a chance of transforming the nation. So they were not shy about advertising Sunday-school publications on the flyleaves of popular new books and children’s magazines. They put together special five-dollar and ten-dollar Sunday School Libraries that could be ordered as a kit. They printed flyers to market Sunday schools and distributed themin streetcars.

“At a time when the United States had few national institutions, virtually no national communications network (except the U.S. mail, which these men molded to their needs), and no national corporations, the management of the American Sunday School Union established the framework for what was, in effect, a national evangelical corporation,” summarizes Boylan.

Who were these leaders? The first wave included prominent philanthropists like Benjamin Rush and Theodore Gallaudet. A little later, important roles were played by war-horse donors of the Second Great Awakening like Gerrit Smith and Arthur Tappan (who provided the seed money for the MississippiValley campaign).

The men who really ramped things up, though, were evangelical Christian entrepreneurs who had left small towns and farms to participate in America’s commercial boom during the 1800s. They were eager that other poor citizens should have a chance to rise as they did. And they worried that the moral behaviors necessary for personal and national success were not consistently taught to the young.

Alexander Henry ran a thriving import business, and became the first president of the American Sunday School Union. John Brown was a financier who founded Brown Brothers investment bank and gave devoted volunteer service and a lifetime of donations to Sunday schools, then left $10,000 to the cause when he died. There were china merchants, flour millers, manufacturers, and shoemakers among the movement’s leadership.

Most funders were also volunteer leaders who gave the effort its strategy and techniques, and many were involved at a grassroots level in their own community schools. John Wanamaker, the genius retailer famous for his honesty and his pioneering deployment of advertising, personally set up a collection of Sunday schools in poor neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Francis Scott Key, the lawyer who penned our national anthem, was a serious Christian who taught Bible classes for years, then helped guide the American Sunday School Union. The Brandywine Manufacturers’ Sunday School that was staffed and funded partly by the duPont family taught an average of 200 students for decades.

Rooting the Protestant ethic in American breasts

The giant push made by these philanthropists to teach Americans to read and instruct them in the Christian faith and the habits of self-mastery was a smash success—for pupils, teachers, neighbors, and the nation. Sunday schools became both community fixtures and creators of American identity. “On the frontier, mission schools brought the familiar rituals and symbols of Protestant life to newly settled areas,” explains Boylan. “Urban mission schools delivered important social services to pupils and their families through employment agencies, free classes, and winter relief.”

“The Sunday school was not just for children,” she continues. “It served, as one missionary noted, as a ‘central point where all in the neighborhood meet to teach or be taught.’” And “most churches of the West of recent formation have grown out of Sunday schools previously existing,” commented one 1859 observer.

As “agencies of cultural transmission,” Sunday schools—run by devoted young role models, and organized and funded by volunteer businessmen—were enormously influential in cementing virtues like self-discipline, benevolence, and self-improvement.

Sunday schools also birthed or fueled other social innovations. The YMCA movement, for instance, and the Christian Commission that was active during the Civil War were each created and manned by many of the same volunteers and donors powering Sunday schools. Both of those organizations were important in helping young people, especially new urbanites, adapt to drastic changes in American life without losing their moral compasses. And many of the businessmen and clerks who became the main constituents of the YMCA movement were in turn encouraged to teach at Sunday schools as part of their serviceto community.

The Benton Street Mission in St. Louis, the Railroad Mission in Chicago, Dwight Moody’s school, the North End Mission in Boston, Bethany Mission in Philadelphia—these all grew out of Sunday schooling, and became full-service neighborhood charities providing everything from cheap restaurants to shelter for reformed prostitutes. “On frontiers both rural and urban, the school became the advance guard for the introduction of other ‘civilizing’ institutions, especially the church and the common school,” concludes Boylan, “but also the central values of Protestant culture, including self-discipline, benevolence, orderliness, and self-improvement. Seen in the broad context of cultural extension, the schools’ educational importance can hardly be overstated.”

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